Monday, September 3, 2012

Steinbeck and Rocinante

When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. . . . . In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job.  

Thus starts John Steinbeck's wonderful book, Travels with Charley.  I will be 58 next year and my wanderlust is not waning; it is exploding.  I laughed and laughed when I sat down and reread the book a few weeks ago.  I enjoyed it so much more now than when I was young, and considered the author "an old man".  The pick-up truck and camper shell he drove across the United States with his own travel buddy, a big black poodle, are on permanent display at the John Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California.  I couldn't wait to see it.  This is a shrine to the Art of Travel.  This is a type of shrine I get!

Steinbeck named his green pick-up truck "Rocinante" after Don Quixote's horse.    It took him awhile to get out of the New England area, he was having such a good time.  By now he was world famous, so he wanted to camp, learning from experience that writing his name in a hotel register brought out the local reporters.  He was a shy man and more at home with "the good ole boys" who spent time fishing, drinking and doing nothing.  His novels attest to that.  The most beloved characters from his books are mostly bums, drunks and ne'er do wells.
He almost didn't go to the South.  And I wish, in a way, he hadn't.  The book, as delightful as it was, ends on a very dark note.  Once again, he writes about human beings at their worst.  Only this time, the characters are not fictional; they are real.  The Civil Rights Movement was just beginning in this country and what he witnessed is shocking.  However, it makes Travels with Charley Steinbeckian, doesn't it?  You only have to read his books once for them to stay with you a lifetime.
The National Steinbeck Center is thoughtfully arranged in order of the books he wrote.  I went straight to Rocinante and then backtracked.  I spent a lot of time in the Cannery Row exhibit where his friendship with Ed Ricketts is discussed at length.  I think the times he spent with "Doc" were the best of his life.  He financed a scientific collection trip to Baja with him and became a silent partner in his biological supply business.  This is a friend he could talk with about philosophy. books, science and music.  When he was killed in a car accident, I don't think he really ever recovered from the depression that followed.  Charley, that gentleman of a poodle, certainly tried his best to heal the wound.

I loved the passages about Charley. He responded to commands only in French.  He hated fighting, but barked like a lion if threatened.  Best of all, he was a great traveling companion.  As Steinbeck said,  (he) would rather travel about than anything he can imagine.  Me, too.

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